Thursday, May 13, 2010

Ted Baehr's Inconsistency on Pullman and Lewis

The movie version of Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass was poorly received in the U. S. Why this is so, I’m not sure, as, aside from its ideological message, it has as much going for it as Lord of the Rings, and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It had undoubtedly had something to do, however, with the large Christian majority here in America. By the time of the film’s release, word had long circulated of Pullman’s atheism, and his intended purpose in writing His Dark Materials. His anti-Lewis, anti-Narnia comments had already been widely quoted. While Pullman was very strident expressing these opinions early on, with the advent of the film’s release, he appeared to backpeddle some, professing that he was not attacking religion per se, but totalitarianism in general, and that the movie contained no anti-faith bias. Apparently he was wary of the chilly reception the film might receive in Christian America. Before the film’s release, to be sure, the atheistic nature of the source material had been in wide circulation on the Internet. Christians, especially Christian parents had been forewarned. The Catholic League even produced a booklet entitled The Golden Compass: Agenda Unmasked, available online in PDF format. In any event, word got around, and American moviegoers stayed away. In Europe and Britain, where secularism now predominates, the movie was reportedly far better received. However, it’s American audiences that count, apparently, as much to the dismay of Pullman and his fans, all plans for the sequels have been shelved.

That is a shame, really. Dakota Blue Richards will never get to play Lyra in some of the most dramatic scenes in the trilogy (unless, of course, the day finally comes when computer graphics can created people indistinguishable from live actors), and some truly extravagant scenes will be sorely missed. Concerned Christians have every right to voice their opinions, and expose the Pullman’s agenda, of course. This is not censorship, by any stretch of the imagination. Yet the sequels have nonetheless been effectively prevented from made, at least for the foreseeable future, thanks mostly to the efforts of American Christians. Are there any foreign filmmakers willing to pick up the trilogy?
In browsing around online, I’ve found a number of critical reactions to Pullman's movie, but one that showed an inordinate amount of bias was the one written by “Dr.” Robert Theodore “Ted” Baehr, for his Movieguide site:
There are several reason that I call Dr. Baehr’s review of the film, in particular, “biased.” I cannot fault or disagree with his aversion to the film’s atheistic elements. Though they have been toned down to avoid controversy, the elements are there nonetheless. The Magisterium officals are very obviously clergyman, for example. And I've yet to hear an actual Chrisitian seriously refer to athiests as "feeethinkers", as one of said clergyman does at one point. But when one looks at Dr. Baehr’s reviews for Narnia, and other Christian-based entertainment, one can see that his own worldview has led to criticism of the almost all elements of the film, some of which are mostly or entirely unmerited. For example:

Regrettably, at points the art direction and special effects look phony and just a little too computer generated. If we just evaluated THE GOLDEN COMPASS on artistic merit, it would be the script, not the just the production values, that would be worth an essay on bad filmmaking and bad scriptwriting. Thus, the movie contains too many boring, didactic speeches and too many scenes where the expository dialogue doesn’t move along the plot. Even so, people probably will forget how dull the first two-thirds are, because the battle sequences are engaging.

Phony special effects? At no during the film did I notice any of the effects to be any less “phony” than those of the previous year’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And what did Dr. Baehr have to say regarding that film?

The production quality is much greater than the sum of its parts. The camerawork is superb. The computer generated images are enchanting. Aslan comes to life in a magnificent way (he is a real lion!), as do all the creatures of Narnia. The four children are very good, especially Lucy, and the only regret is that Peter and Susan are not given meatier lines. Ms. Swinton would have been a better White Witch if she had been allowed to be more seductive, but her costume often cocoons her personality. The music is good, though not great. The direction is very exciting and entertaining, though it lacks nuance and depth. But, aside from critical nitpicking, the movie is spectacular! C. S. Lewis never wanted a movie made of his books, but one can even imagine that he would be proud of this production, and so everyone involved deserves high praise.

I agree with everything Baehr has to say in the above paragraph, as well as in the review below:

Save, maybe, for the fact that Tilda Swinton is slightly seductive, which is about as much as she could be allowed to be. In this version, the White Witch appears much kinder than in previous versions, in which she is depiected as almost cartoonishly evil, and you end up wondering how Edmond, even though he’s a just a kid, could be so easily taken in. She is even a bit flirtatious with him in this current version, which, while it would be ineffective on a child, would effectively prove enticing to a pre-teen.

The reason Lewis did not want any movie (other than a possible animated version, like the one shown back in 1978) to made of his works, by the way, was because he felt that no movie could ever do justice to the rich and fantastic imagery in his stories. But that was, of course, long before the arrival of today’s incredible CGI effects. There is no doubt in my mind that Lewis would be terribly pleased. The PBS Wonderworks version of Wardrobe shown back in the late eighties was a handsome production, but the production values—including the fact that Aslan looked like a huge stuffed toy—would have been precisely what Lewis had feared. The producers of that version went the same route they did with The Box of Delights. While the interplay of live actors, faker costumes, and hand-drawn animated sequences worked well for that, as the whole story took place in a dream, Narnia is entire secondary world. However, some of the best dialogue, which was almost all kept intact in the PBS version, is often cut from the big screen version. Most unfortunately missing are the dialogue with the beavers regarding Edmund’s betrayal, and the discussion of the White Witch’s non-human origins. Not to mention the meal cooked by Mrs. Beaver, which according to Lewis involved “a gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot.”
But back to Dr. Baehr’s reviews. I found the character of Iorek Byrnison, the noble armored polar bear warrior of Compass to be every bit as impressive, and very much equally as awesome onscreen as that of Aslan. It’s notable can’t see at all how much of the action in Compass –which includes Lyra’s rescue by the Gyptions, the battle between the armored bear kings, the liberation of the children form Bolvanger, and the ensuing battle with the Tartars, and many others—could possibly be construed as boring, or that the scenes leading up to them are any less engaging than the first two-thirds of Wardrobe. The chief issue that Baehr raises in his review, however, involves the heroine’s morality. In another passge:

Although the heroine and her friends are portrayed as the people the audience supports, a little objective examination of who they are would make any discerning viewer question why they’re rooting for them. Lyra is known for her lying so much so that her bear friend calls her “silver tongue.” In the story, this is a positive adjective. Even pagan and other non-Christian societies have disliked liars, however, so it’s very strange that Lyra, the story’s heroine, should be commended in this way. In fact, Lyra’s lying is often a useful pragmatic device to solve the story’s plot problems.

Another problem with the story are the confusing character motivations. Mrs. Coulter, for instance, who turns out to be Lyra’s mother, reaches out to Lyra a couple times, including saving her from having her daemon separated from her and killed. In return, Lyra tricks her mother into opening a tin can containing a deadly poisonous mechanical insect. Her mother doesn’t die, but Lyra doesn’t seem to care and, in truth, wants to get rid of her mother. While Lyra is opposed to all authority, including her mother, she easily befriends strangers and accepts their authority and their directives.

Thus, the more one thinks about the world of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, the more one realizes how upside down and inside out it is. Do parents really want their children hate them, rebel against them and want to kill them? Mrs. Coulter may be the villain, but all she really tries to do in this movie is to save her daughter’s life.

The final paragraph is very misleading. What Baehr isn't telling his readers is that Ms. Coulter is the lady in charge of the Oblation Board, which is engaged in the kidnapping and execution of innocent children in horrifyingly unethical experiments run by the Church. A terrible slam on religion to be sure, but one that one within which Mrs. Coulter is culpable for quite a bit more than trying to save her daughter. In the book we see Mrs. Coulter entice a child with chocotyl (a hot drink) and send him off to his eventual death by intercision, much the way the White Witch entices Edmund into betraying his siblings. Mrs. Coulter is scarcely any less evil. In the film, one of the experimenters remarks on “how eager she ( Mrs. Coulter)was to see (the children and their deamons) pulled apart.” It is true that when she sees that Lyra (her own daughter) is about to suffer the selfsame fate, she rushes to intervene, saving her in the nick of time. This is itself be commendable for what it’s worth, but it also demonstrates very clearly a case where parental love is merely an instinct, and as such is, in this case at least, ultimately selfish. Dr. Baehr seems to have forgotten that Christ admonished those who loved their sons or daughters, or mothers or fathers, for that matter, more than Him. Lyra is one who appears to be the most “Christian” here, although Pullman himself would perhaps be reluctant to admit to this. The mechanical insect appeared to be the only way Lyra could escape in this instance. Endangering her mother, then, wasn’t her intent—her intent was to save the other children, which she accomplishes heroically. Lyra’s destruction of the vile intercision device, liberation of the captive children, and her bravely staring down the leader of the Tartars and ravenous wolf-daemons is something Baehr conveniently glosses over. One might as well pose the question: if your parent was Hitler or Stalin, would you or should you remain loyal to them?
The issue Baehr has the most difficulty with is that of a habitual liar as the heroine. Is lying (bearing false witness) absolutely wrong in every conceivable instance? That has been a matter of much philosophical debate. Emmanuel Kant argued that it was. Some modern Christians (including some of my friends on Sabbath Keepers Forum) would agree. There are certain instances in which telling a technical untruth (say to Nazi Green Police who are searching for hidden Jews) appears to work for the human good rather than for evil. On the other hand, lying is generally committed for purely selfish motives, and even well-intentioned lies often wind up causing harm to others. This is called situational ethics, and some opposed Christians would define it as “justifiable sin.” Part of my take on situational ethics would be summed up thusly, for my own post of Sabbath Keepers:

Situational ethics definitely do exist, and they in no way contradict
moral absolutes. Why does God has a prohibition on lying? Becuase in
general lying causes harm to ourselves and others. But I've presented
two stiautions where lying might save someone's life, and cause no one
harm. It's hard to imagine a scenario where commiting adultry or
stealing is necessary to save someone's life. But let's just suppose
that some extortionist threatened to blow up a hosptial or day-care
center, or threatened a person's family unless they committed adultry.
Adultry is, virtually by definition, n act of betrayal, and it is done
for reasons that entirely self-serving and involve disregard for
others--especially one's own spouse and children. But in such a
hypothetical situation, the "adulterer" would not be acting out of
selfishness or lust at all but purely for altruistic reasons.
Now, maybe I'm wrong here, and committing what is technically adultry
here would lead to even greater evils, but I'm at a loss to know how
or why. You seem to be taking a position that some things are wrong
merely because "rules are rules are rules." But morality cannot be
determined according to technicalities such as this. God does not want
you to obey his rules "because I say so!" and that's it. That would
make no moral sense.

The Bible may be the written Word of God, but the Word is alos writ inot one's heart:

For when the Gentiles (non-Jews) which have not the law, do by nature
the things contained within the law, these, having not the law, are a
law unto themselves: which shew (show) the work of the law written in
their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their
thoguhts the mean while excusing or excusing one another..Rom
2, 14-15

It is probably no coincidence that Pullman, as a devout, ideological atheist, invented a heroine of essentially good-hearted nature, whose personal morals are seemingly rather loose. Lyra Belacqua qualifies as something of a picturesque heroine. As such, she compares with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, tow other picturesque children’s heroic protagonists who were also invented by a devout atheist. Pullman views religion as repressive and authoritative, as a cruel enemy of human freedom. But he is mistaken in seeing God’s morality as depending on nonthinking obedience to technicalities; adherence to technicalities is a flawed human concept, not one invented by God. Another excerpt from Baehr’s review:

What’s bad about the movie, therefore, is not overt atheism. That comes in the later books in the three-part series. What’s bad is that it creates a heroine who is selfish, willful and stubborn to such a degree that she does not express love, kindness, joy, peace, or any of those other wonderful virtues that help us put others before ourselves. The Good News of the Gospel is a message of love and forgiveness, not a message of control. It is a personal relationship with a living God, Jesus Christ, who loves us so much that He has laid down his life for us and has given us new life where we can experience real joy, real happiness and real fulfillment. Every one of the virtues Lyra disdains is a virtue based in love. Her lying hurts others, but telling the truth in love helps others. If, for instance, we could not trust anyone, society would fall apart. Trust, honesty, integrity, and the other virtues flow from our love of one another.

Is Baehr talking about the same movie that I saw? No love, kindness, peace or joy? All the action of the entire plot center’s around Lyra’s quest to save her friend and the other missing children. Surely love and kindness-qualities seemingly absent from both her parents—are in fact both Lyera's most enduring qualities and strongest motivators. In the context of the movie and its situational ethics, Lyra’s lying actually proves beneficial to others; her willful deception of the usurper King Ifor Rakenson enables Iork to gain his rightful place as king. Her deception of the guard a Bolvangar, and later of Mrs. Coulter, liberates the kidnapped children. Baehr’s assessment of that, as I’ve tried to demonstrate, is flawed. But perhaps,in the case of the battling bears, Baehr is refering to villainous Rakinson who is killed in combat, and perhaps she could have found a more peaceful solution? Lyra, however, disdains not a single of the virtues listed by Baehr.

It must be said of Baehr’s ideological inconsistency in light of both Pullman’s and Lewis’s fantasy world that there are some Christian writers out there who are equally critical of Lewis, mostly for the pagan elements of his novels, in spite of the Christianity at the core of the Narnia story (one of the most odiaous being David J. Stewart, who is also a Classic OSAS defender). But it is obvious for Ted Baehr’s reviews that he is engaged in a culture war, and culture may or may not conform to the actual teachings of Christ.

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